Witches and Bastards

Now that we’ve learned from yet another posthumous tape what “Tricky Dick” Nixon thought of assassinated Indian PM Indira Gandhi (old witch) and her billion-odd compatriots (devious bastards), I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. As an Indian immigrant, I feel – vaguely – that I ought to be insulted. But I’m not. Instead I’m actually a little disappointed with this rather paltry display of verbal fire-power from a man whom I,like many others growing up in the third world, considered a villain of classic magnitude. Who can forget that cartoon of the Seventh Fleet chugging menacingly into the Indian Ocean wh ile the Indian army was trying to end the whole-sale massacre of East Pakistanis by the West Pakistan army? It was one of the few modern wars that met the stringent definition of a just war and Nixon’s interference was greeted with universal scorn in India. R. K. Lakshman, the nonpareil of Indian political cartoonists, incarnated him as a scowling whale, “Mopy Dick,” (or was it “Morbid Dick”?) spouting off in a corner of the Pacific and anxiously eyeing the progress of his buddy, the blood-drenched General Yahya Khan.

And now we’re bastards. Weak stuff. Down under, in the land of sheilas and billabongs, they might mistake that for a compliment, a ‘bastard’ being more comic there than insulting, and in come circumstances, downright complimentary. But at any rate, good or bad, it’s fairly inaccurate. Indians are not bastards in anything approaching the same numbers as Americans, fully a third of whom are born to unwed mothers, if we are to believe Family Research Council numbers. Indians may do better at infanticide or female foeticide, at dowry deaths or some other domestic sport, but they are definitely behind in bastardy, as are most countries when compared to the West, although given a generation or two of imperial influence this might change…

As for Indira Gandhi, with that two-tone mane, there’s no doubt she was the Asian answer to Cruella DeVil. But frankly, it’s a look I don’t dislike. Of course, I may be prejudiced, since when I gaze into the mirror I see the same racial signature, the shadows under the eyes, the thick eyebrows. Witches don’t have retrousse noses and wispy brows. Old witches, anyway. But despite this superficial purchase, as an insult, witch is rather weak since the dark sisterhood has been making a nice come-back all over the globe for several decades now. Legions of radical feminists, earth-lovers, traditionalists, Euro-revivalists, pagans, medievalists, spiritualists, occultists, and neo-Orientalists pay obeisance in one way or other to the goddess and her coven of priestesses. Even dialectical materialists like to dig up the witchcraft trials and persecutions of the early modern era as the last nail in the coffin of the ancient communitarian world of the goddess and an early and deadly crime of patriarchic capitalism. Witches are now the star turn in every kind of entertainment – from Samantha on TV”s “Bewitched” to Morgan LeFay in King Arthur.

Now there you have two witches who don’t fit the long-nosed, hirsute stereotype. But notice that they’re young and not old. Blonde, kitten-faced, and youthful, on them the black hat and broom simply become kinky appurtenances for Witchcraft itself is always only redundance in young women who have the biological brew going for them anyway. After all, it was that biological ferment, needing to be either suppressed or redirected along more socially utilitarian lines, that led to the invention of the Virgin-Mother in the first place. Granted the spectacular propensity to live without ever really entering the cycle of sex-birth-death at all she ended up unable to leave it except through the ingenious device of bodily assumption. But in the days before that Capitalist-Christian narrative became firmly lodged in our cultural heritage, the wild woman (from a more hostile perspective, the fallen woman) created roles for herself far beyond such limitations imposed by the female body.

Neither madonna nor whore, she carved out her own vocation as a healer, herbalist, teacher, tea-leaf reader, singer and seer, in the forests, in the caves, in the wilds on the fringes of the village, in whatever territory was anathema to society. She created her own power rather than submit to the demands of the social machine which inscribed the boundaries of the bidden and the forbidden.

By those standards, Mrs. G falls short as a witch. She was a product of the social machine not a rebel against it. The widow of Feroze Gandhi, a parliamentarian, and the daughter of Prime Minister Nehru, she was delivered into the circles of power in the traditional way – by a man. First through her father who groomed her in the memorable letters he wrote to her during his years of imprisonment by the British (the sentimental but graceful “Discovery of India,”) and then through her husband’s position. She was also always quite shy, a trait which some – like the socially insecure Nixon – mistook for haughtiness. No obvious witch material there except for the mane and the nose. While the witches beloved of feminist iconography fly their brooms gleefully in the face of a largely masculine power structure, Indira ruled completely through that structure. The political bosses who embraced her believing she would be putty in their hands soon found that she was one of those women with the “heart and stomach of a king.” Her supposed masculinity of style in fact became so much a cheap target for critics that when a masala biography came out with details of a few sexual affairs, some fans forgave the prurience out of relief at discovering that she did have female gonads after all. Your true witch – however ugly and shrivelled – never really leaves that in doubt.

My first thought then was that the imperial wizard of American political nastiness got it wrong about Indira and India. But on second thoughts perhaps not. What failed to endear Indians to Nixon, a quality he labeled “deviousnes,” has enough in common with witchcraft and bastardy to make me think that he was onto something although the label is a indisputably a supreme case of kettle-phobia from one of the grimier pots on the political range. Actually, with his shadowed eyes and long nose, Nixon was himself as good a poster-boy for the black arts as anyone.

And so perhaps he of all people did know whereof he spoke.

To be devious is after all also to be deviant, transgressive, in that post-modern French philosophical way. It is to defy the expected, the normative. Witches, bastards, and the devious are all deviants, playing foot-loose with the expected order of things. A witch is outside the normal world precisely because she is female and powerful in a world where femininity is expected to align with the passive and the pliant and feminine morality is always the Christian virtue of denial and humility – the virtues of the weak – and never the pre-Christian ‘virtu’ of discipline and mastery – the virtues of the strong.

Witches, bastards, and the devious/deviants defy the norm, but it seems that Pakistanis, “straightforward but stupid,” define it. Since Pakistanis are racially no different from Indians, however, the difference Nixon sensed was not racial at all but cultural. It was not Pakistanis but Pakistani military culture that put him at ease. And why not? Which imperial masters would not be comfortable with satraps twice as patriarchal and militaristic than themselves? It was the clear-cut hyper-masculine authoritarianism of the military juntas, proxies for the West, to which Nixon responded in Paki-stan – the land of the pure – and whose lack made him so uncomfortable in the impure land of bastardy and witchcraft. Whatever Mrs G. was and wasn’t, despite bride-burning and female foeticide, large tracts of Indian culture has always been and will be under the rule of the goddess. Hinduism dissolves the subject-object rigidities of the male-on-top logos and promotes the fluid, deviant intelligence of the feminine. Women may conform to the puritan mores of Victorianized India in the Sankritizing classes, but the lowest and highest orders preserve the old folkways of bitchery and witchery.

You only have to watch the village women of India at work in the morning to discover this – the seamless work that starts from the pre-dawn trek to the well some mile or two away and ends late at night squatting over the fire outside a hut while her mate idles outside the toddy shop, beedi-smoke curling up from his hand. Oppression, exploitation, yes. But at the same
time, emancipation as well. The women are dressed for working, not for ogling by men; no demureness, none of the coy ritual of the fertility game; they shout and curse freely at the well, splashing lascivious epithets at each other like the colored water thrown at Holi. Betrayed by the male, they are also freer of the male than their middle-class sisters. These emaciated,
emancipated, tough, toiling women have unconsciously proved what women on welfare in America are finding. They can raise their children alone. Both defy the ubiquitous gaze of the male.

But there is a difference between bastardy inside the imperial state and outside that is crucial. In the imperial state, the missing father is replaced by the state. Outside imperium, that is not yet the case.

In the imperium even those who do have a father end up overshadowed by the hyper-masculinized image created, manipulated, and projected by the imperial state. Under its domination, the hyper-masculine father cripples the growth of his child, either turning him into a replica of himself or a pale, emasculated shadow.

The hyper-masculine male is both beneficiary and sacrifical victim of the imperial machine which employs him as soldier, sailor, beggar-man, and thief as it suits its purposes. We talk of the nanny-state but really it’s the Daddy-State, the substitution of organic, biological fatherhood with the robotic state. The Daddy State teaches its progeny well – through the mythologizing of sports, war, and crime – the three horsemen of the imperial apocalypse. In video games and films, the cult of violence of the Daddy-State reigns – children of all classes slouch around in the baggy, beltless trousers of prisoners to the phallic throb of rap, the soul music of the ghetto war-zones where the unofficial violence of the underclass plays out; their older siblings wear army camoflage and olive drab and their parents cruise the highways in sports utility vehicles and the military’s own Hummer, celebrating the official violence of the overclass. Roughly a third or more of the American economy depends on the prison-military complex. Whole sections of the populace are imprisoned at rates second only to China in the world while other sections profit from the jobs that accompany the growth of the complex. In America, there can be no true bastards or true witches under the all-seeing eye of the Daddy-State.

Mrs. G also might be no true witch, but in some sense, by resisting the bipolar Cold War logic of us-against-them, she stopped being Daddy’s girl. Insider she was, but also in many ways an outsider. An unintellectual, pragmatic woman whom the intellectual elites of India looked down on; a student at Shantiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore’s unorthodox school of indigenous learning, and a woman who never took a degree at Oxford, who yet went on to lead a country that reveres formal education; a logical woman who followed the astrological dictates of the Rasputin-like yogi, Dhirendra Brahmachari; a shy, tubercular girl who grew up to outwit the generals of Pakistan, conduct a bloody siege of a holy shrine, and throw princesses into jail, all the while boasting that she herself was India and India she. She became in some imaginations, Durga, the all-powerful goddess, invinceable nature, blowing up the brittle creations of impudent men.

But Mrs G’s witchery was limited and ultimately too entangled in the machinery of the state to transfigure it in any way. The real witch of India was not Mrs. G but Mahatma-ji, the androgynous father of India. In his old age, Bapu (daddy), as he was known, strove to actualize in his own body the feminine principle. The episodes in which he slept naked next to his young nieces were notoriously misunderstood even by the brilliant mind of Arthur Koestler who wrote in “The Yogi and the Commissar,” his iconoclastic book on Gandhi, that “it took a lot of derring-do to keep Bapu in chastity.” But conventional chastity is still entangled in the binary logic of either/or. What Gandhi was engaged in was not some kind of testing of chastity; neither was he, as his detractors claimed, simply a “dirty-old man” although a longing for simple physical affection may well have been the psychological motivation for the old man after the death of his wife, Kamala. He was actually practicing the ancient witchcraft called tantra. Legions of popular sex-manuals have reduced this complex system of harnessing life-energy to a quick-fix for bored couples. But between California tantra and the real thing lies the world of difference between genital pyrotechnics and body-mind wisdom. What Gandhi was doing was recreating himself as an androgyne beyond the binary logic of male and female. He was in search of siddhas, magical powers, available only to spiritual adepts.

Gandhi was convinced that his own inner world was connected subtly with the external world and that a failure of control in one would be reflected in a failure in the other. Over and over again, for instance during massive rioting in Noakhali in East Bengal, he blamed political failure on the failure of his own will. Witchery indeed. What a refutation of the state to imagine a politics of one, conducted within one’s own body and imagination. What heresy against the religion of the state to display power as a naked body. Naked not merely physically but morally. Gandhian transparence – the subject of “My Experiments with Truth” – when contrasted with the Machiavellianism of the modern state, may look like nothing more than deviance, but it’s a deviant wisdom that foils the zero-sum game of power-politics.

Whatever we think of the rationality or success or even the subconscious motivations of this politics of the demasculinized male and practitioner of witchcraft, when all is said and done it remains perhaps the most successful and admired alternative to the violent state in the last century. It was because of Gandhi that civil disobedience and non-violent resistance became the weapons of the Civil Rights Movement in the US. It was out of Gandhianism that the concept of sustainable development emerged. Even Gandhi’s harsh puritanism about sex should be understood on its own terms for what it was, not anti-feminist but a way to remove women from the hierarchical male gaze that would reduce them to sexual objects.

Gandhianism has been the most effective counter to the view pervasive from Machiavelli to Marx that the end justifies the means and that the real-politik of state-craft demands that morality be put aside. Gandhi’s witch-craft denies this special treatment of the state; for it, ends are inextricably tied with means. Rather than allowing the individual to be erased in the mass, Gandhianism at every level, tries to place the most sentient unit of society at the center: the individual and the local community.

Gandhi’s atavistic vision of self-sufficient villages and the harnessing of intellect to the spiritual growth of the individual rather than to industrial technology may have sounded like Luddism during the orgy of state violence in the mid-century but they have a strange futuristic relevance as quantum physics unveils a physical universe closely aligned and even inseparable from the psyche. The newest technology – nanotechnology – is an anti-technology that returns the human being again to the center of things and reinforces the deviant logic of mutuality, complementarity, and personal power rather than authoritarianism, competition, and the mass mind as the organizing principles of society.

When the CIA turns to “remote viewing” (psychic visualization) to conduct its operations, Gandhi’s tantric politics sheds its quaintness. Beyond the global Daddy-state, as New Age physics and technology increasingly validate ancient Eastern ideas of nature and psyche, the witches and bastards of post-colonial India may well offer the most viable template for the development of anti-authoritarian non-violent communities that return human beings to their own personal power.

And so it could well turn out that the imperial wizard’s insult in the end may contain the most potent recipe we have today for anti-imperialism.

LILA RAJIVA is a free-lance journalist and author of “The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American media,” (Monthly Review Press). She can be reached at: lrajiva@hotmail.com